Site icon Sam Bartko, Phd

Okay, Begin Again


I recently read a dharma story about a young novice monk situated in a Zen monastery who has his first Kensho experience. The story comes from the perspective of a monk sipping tea in another part of the monastery, overlooking the garden, where a Zen master is using a hoe to work the soil for some new flowers. As the onlooking monk looks down to the garden, he sees the novice excitedly approaching the master, exclaiming his supramundane insight, but all the monk hears is the most emphatic, excited words of the novice. “Suchness!!” … … “Ultimate!!” … … … … “Unconditioned!!!” … … .. “Unsurpassed!” … … … The young monk finishes his enthused declaration of insight, then eagerly awaits the validation and congratulation of the Zen master.

The Zen master stops what he is doing, wipes the sweat from his brow, and looks at the young novice, utterly unimpressed. “SO WHAT BOY!!!” he barks at the novice, and with that, he continues hoeing the garden, dismissing the novice and shoeing him away, back to the Zendo for more meditation.

This story gave me the best belly laugh I’ve had in quite some time. Sometimes as spiritual practitioners we can forget that spiritual practice is not about becoming special or supernatural. Spiritual practice can seem like a self-improvement project or a thing we do to transcend being human. But the further along this path we go, the more self we see through, until there is only the garden, the hoe, and the present moment. All we ever have is right now. All we ever do is what we are doing right now. All we can know is what is known right here, right now. I think the moral of the story is to shut up, sit down, and pay attention to what is occurring right now. Any time we have a spiritual insight, we must go through a process of coming to terms with that insight, and the best way to move forward is often to just to shrug it off, saying to ourselves “SO WHAT BOY?!!!” and move on.

Whatever insight we think we have, if we are still breathing there is still this moment. Whatever we think we know, there is still more to know. Whatever problems present, we are always right here in this body. Sure, we will realize genuine insights into the nature of reality and mind along the way, but the moment we take ownership of that insight or reify an experience, turning it into an extension of self, the Universe will deliver a Zen smack, ushering us back to chopping wood, carrying water, and hoeing the garden. As it should be. What point is there to excessively pontificate on the past? What point is there to claiming ownership of the Unconditioned? What point is there in worrying about what has yet to happen or what has already happened?

The best way to move forward after a spiritual insight might just be to simply begin anew, with a fresh set of eyes. We can simply go about our business, circling closer and closer to a beginner’s perspective, the closest we can ever come to any Truth.

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